The adolescent brain and the Atonement

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Mark H. Butler, professor of marriage and family therapy, spoke during an Education Week workshop Monday about how the Atonement can bring peace to the struggling adolescent.

Butler began the hour with the story of one of his patients who, as an adolescent, struggled with a behavioral addiction that disqualified him from passing the sacrament in church meetings. In an attempt to avoid the shame, guilt and judgment of the congregation, the young man began to leave the room each Sunday until the administration of the sacrament was over. One week, the boy’s father noticed that he did not return to the meeting after the passing of the sacrament. When he searched the church building for him, he found the boy behind a curtain, weeping.

This scenario reflects the despair felt by many adolescents whose natural instincts and underdeveloped brains seem to clash with the spiritual anxiety that emerges at that stage of life.

Butler acknowledged that the adolescent brain is not the same as an adult brain, but is much less developed. He identified a number of vulnerabilities of the teenage brain resulting from its underdevelopment, including immature judgment and reasoning, absence of forward thinking, poor impulse control, failure to perceive risk, weak capacity for delaying gratification, high arousal-seeking behavior and emotional intensity.

Complicating the confused thought processes of an immature brain are the intense natural instincts brought about by puberty, which Butler referred to as the “coming of age” of the natural man. At this stage, teens are not yet completely capable of the adult self-discipline that is demanded of them by the gospel doctrine they have been taught their entire life.

Meanwhile, adolescence is the same age that youth begin to have a spiritual awakening, during which time they begin to hunger for truth and develop a desire to be perfect. This perfectionism, combined with the physical and mental incapability of perfection and the tendency of the adolescent brain to see situations in extremes (i.e. black or white, right or wrong, perfect or imperfect) can leave teens feeling guilty, hopeless or even depressed.

Butler compared these feelings to those of Nephi in 2 Nephi 4:16-35:

“O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.”

Though Nephi felt sorrow for his sins, Butler pointed out, he refused to be dragged down by these feelings.

“Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. … Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.”

To give teenagers this same peace, Butler emphasized the importance of parents’ relationships with their adolescents. Parents need to instill in their children a proper understanding of God’s expectations — perfection, yes, but not in this lifetime — as well as an understanding of God’s preparations for mankind’s probation and developmental journey in mortality, and the Atonement of Christ as the centerpiece of God’s redeeming love and the cornerstone of the plan for peace and joy.

“We had better teach (teenagers) the atonement’s perfect fit for the developmental realities of adolescence,” Butler said.

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